Big Whit keeps the pocket

Andrew Whitworth

CHOUDRANT, La. — It is a mere hour before his fourth annual dinner for The Big Whit 77 Foundation and no one knows what is going to happen first on this sold-out Friday night.

Is Melissa Clark Whitworth, a former Miss Louisiana and current doesn't miss-a-thing foundation director, going to give birth? Or is her husband, Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth, going to deliver the week's most famous man in America as their guest speaker?

When he shows up with Bobby Crouton a few minutes later, a lot of things have been answered. One of which is that no matter the season, Whitworth is at his best protecting quarterbacks.

He's got the blindside of two of them Friday. There is Crouton, this week's hotel alias of embattled Saints head coach Sean Payton, who played three games for the 1987 striking Chicago Bears. And there is Cincinnati's Andy Dalton, born in 1987 and off one of the most striking rookie seasons in NFL history.

And because this is what good teammates do, both quarterbacks have Whitworth's back.

Whitworth has chosen Dalton to introduce him even though Dalton prefers to speak softly and carry a playoff berth.

"It's going to be a five-worder," predicts Whitworth of Dalton's speech. " 'This is Big Daddy Whitworth.' ''

And Payton has chosen to honor his commitment to speak even though 30 minutes after he confirmed last week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that he had given Payton one of the harshest fines in league history with a one-year suspension for his role in Bountygate.

"Bobby Crouton. Crouton like the salad. Crouton. Bobby Crouton, you got it?" Payton later regales the crowd of how he corrected the people at his hotel hideaway when they called him "Mr. Croton."

Like Shakespeare in his prime, there is a lot of appearance vs. reality going on in this Bayou drama. But never for the straight-shooting Whitworth.

"In this society too many people see somebody make a mistake and want to be the judge, and send people off packing," Whitworth is saying before the crowd descends. "(Payton) is not running. He's not hiding. He's going to take it in stride and be better than ever. And to me, to show up in adversity, to show up in the toughest week of your life, that to me shows everything character-wise you'd want to know."

The man we call "The Governor" is at his networking best on this night. Whitworth's foundation that focuses on fostering leadership among youth has been able to hand out 65 scholarships as well as aid other programs for youth and families in the parishes of Ouachita and Lincoln and the bread doesn't just show up.

At a pre-party, a cadre of invited guests are waiting to have a personal appearance with Payton at the home of Whitworth friend Todd Davison. Davison's twin brother Steve built the golf course where their homes sit at Squire Creek Country Club and Todd's home once made the A list pages of Southern Living.

Indeed, the evening takes on the air of a campaign fundraiser. The Davisons have flown Payton from New Orleans in their private plane and Steve, Whitworth and Dalton leave to go pick him up. There is the obligatory delay and when Whitworth strides through the front door with Payton, the crowd erupts rally style.

Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor who once shared the dais with Whitworth at an event a few years back, would love to have that kind of political capital right about now.

The numbers are growing like the crowds. They raised $50,000 at the first dinner, then $100,000, then $150,000. Then, of course, to get Payton to speak …

As someone said Friday night when there's a celebrity sports event in Louisiana, you hear from a few folks needing tickets. When Payton speaks, you hear from everyone you haven't heard from in years.

There was no doubt in Payton's mind that he would shed Bobby Crouton for this.

"We've got such a tie to this state and to see what they've been able to do in this part of the state, I'm thankful to him and his wife for having me here," Payton says.  

Buddy  Davis, sports editor of the Ruston Daily Leader, is in his 40th year at the paper chronicling everything from Little League to Karl Malone's NBA Hall of Fame enshrinement. He's surveying the scene with a camera and notebook because at a paper with 15,000 circulation you have to do it all.

"A lot of money," says Davis, who first covered Whitworth when he took pictures of a West Monroe-Ruston freshman game. "Journalists aren't supposed to be good with numbers, but I can calculate that. People have always liked Whit because of what he's given back to the community. What he and Melissa have done mean a lot to the people here."

Payton's popularity hasn't taken a blow in the heart of Saints country. He's not the Bounty Hunter here. He is the inexhaustible community advocate that had as much to do with New Orleans getting back on its feet after Katrina as any person alive as well as the man who brought the Saints an NFL title.

Now he's talking about how his son Conner is going to be pumped up that his dad is sitting next to Dalton.

"He's all about Andy Dalton and TCU," says Payton, who still has homes in Dallas from his days coaching with the Cowboys. "We've flown to some games and Conner is all over him."

Payton hosted Dalton for a pre-draft visit last year and he doesn't avoid the similarities with his own Pro Bowler, Drew Brees. They're both smart, get the ball out quickly, and live on anticipation.

"And if you look closely, I think he looks like John Madden," Payton says. "Look at his eyebrows."

Whitworth has always been looking closely at Dalton and he's always liked what he's seen. He thinks his guy showed on the field what Payton is showing off it.  

"I want Andy Dalton to be able to throw a pick in the most critical part of the game and realize, you know what? The next time I get the ball I'm going to do something special with it," Whitworth says. "And that's kind of what Sean is doing. Whatever happened, it looks bad on my program but I'm going to make up for it."

But maybe the guy Whitworth admires most among the gliterrati

is Collins Wade. He's director and co-founder of Broaden Horizons, a group that works with at-risk, underprivileged children at West Monroe Baptist Church and the foundation foots a good deal of the bill. It's an all-year program that Whitworth tries to meet with once a week when he's back home.

"They were able to give us some money that allowed every last one of them to go on a vacation trip for a few days to Grapevine, Texas," says Wade of the 40 children. "That means a lot."

Whitworth shakes his head.

"What a great guy Collins Wade is," Whitworth says. "He doesn't make very much money over there, but he doesn't care about that and he'll keep on doing it because he loves it."

When he gets up to speak, Whitworth protects his guys again. Dalton has the great future and he's so glad he's a Bengal and as for Payton ... .

"I know the guy and I know people who know him," Whitworth says. "I've heard the word, 'father figure.' I've heard the word 'mentor.' I look at him like a brother, like a friend, like an extremely intelligent football coach. ... He's in a tough spot where he gets to show real character, and he's showing it because he showed up here tonight."

Mark it down. Whitworth is keeping Bobby Crouton clean because that's what left tackles do.

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